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Backpacking North America's tallest waterfall, Upper Yosemite Falls, CA

Yosemite National Park - a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts

Backpacking Upper Yosemite Falls
Outdoorsy Tribe Members

The Upper Yosemite Falls hike is one of the iconic hikes in Yosemite National Park. The trail is steep right from the beginning. Climbing about 2700 feet in 3.5 miles, with many many switchbacks. While we started off counting the switchback, we quickly lost count as the scenery around was captivating enough to distract us.


Not many places in the Yosemite National Park will provided you stunning 360 degree panoramic views of the Yosemite Valley, Half Dome and the Yosemite Falls.


Upper Yosemite Falls trail, some facts


The falls are the tallest waterfall in North America at 2425 feet, and you'll be able to see it from many angles as you hike to the top. Yosemite Falls is actually made up of three separate falls: Upper Yosemite Fall (1,430 feet), the middle cascades (675 feet), and Lower Yosemite Fall (320 feet).


Spring and early summer has the maximum flow of water in the falls. The moraine which is accumulated unconsolidated rock also called glacial till caused along with the glacier is responsible for forming the falls. This moraine diverted the Yosemite Creek from its path down the steep gully and forced it directly off the cliff. This geological event created the tallest waterfalls in the world and one of the most iconic features in Yosemite


Backpacking to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls


Distance - Plan for about 8 Miles round trip. While the falls are about 3.5 miles, the backpacking site we picked was a bit further ahead towards Eagle Peak. There is no place to pitch tent next to the falls (wish there was). Make sure to speak with the ranger at the wilderness permit office on recommendation for the best spot to camp while in the area (the rangers are extremely knowledgeable about the area)


Parking - The trailhead is located behind Camp 4, and very close to Yosemite Valley Lodge (this is where we stayed the previous night). Yosemite shuttle stop #7 is what you can take if using the shuttle, from other parts of the valley.


Parking is available along the road near Camp 4 (limited) or at the parking lot right opposite the Camp 4 location. You will not be able to use Yosemite Valley Lodge parking area as that is for guests only.


Permits Requirements - are always required to camp anywhere in the wilderness and within Yosemite as well. There is a lottery system at recreation website, ideally apply 6 months ahead of your date or otherwise try your luck on any open slots 7 days before your expected departure - cancellations can usually accommodate smaller groups. If you are adventurous enough, you could also walk up to the wilderness permit office and check for any unused permits after 11:00 AM PST


A relentless climb for so worth it views of Yosemite Valley - would you do it?


Tribe drove in from the Bay Area the night before but ended by reaching very late into Yosemite. After somewhat of a decent sleep, breakfast & coffee at the Base Camp Eatery it seemed like the perfect idea to start the long day. From here we headed to pick up the wilderness permit. Didn't expect to have so much crowd early hours, parking lots were already full. It took us bit of time to gather the permit and then head back towards Camp 4, which is where the hike starts. Ended up being a struggle finding parking as even what seemed like relatively early the lots were quite packed.


Yosemite Valley Views
Yosemite Valley Views

The result of running this logistics was we ended up starting our hike around 11:30 AM, which certainly was a late start. The first mile features a relentless 1,000 ft climb, and the heat was just something else that day, specially with the wild fire nearby. 40-45 lbs backpacks were adding to the exhaustion. First stop was Columbia Rock, what gorgeous views of the valley, made us forget the gruel. Perfect spot for a lunch break and opportunity to give the shoulders some rest. Just ahead from here is the first view of the falls, the cool breeze and mist from this massive falls was welcoming, exactly what we needed. This year the snow was awesome and the falls have been roaring even in late July!


Reminder that while there is some shade along the way, most of the trail bakes in the sun all day long being on the south side of the mountain. Tribe ended up having three of our members deciding to turn back from Columbia Rock due to dehydration and exhaustion because of heat. Next half mile gave a little break, before it started to climb the remaining 1.5 miles for another 1,7000 ft. Switchback after switchback, seemed never ending and relentless !!!


There are mostly no water sources to refill at least 2.5 miles into the hike, so very important to plan hydration (4 Liters on this hike is recommended) or this could be 3.5 miles if the streams are dry. Past the first view of the falls and multiple switchbacks, there were 1-2 water sources to fill water from - it was amazing to grab some chilled water from these little streams running down the mountain. These sources seemed seasonal and had not dried up because of ample snowfall this past season. Always filter before you drink.


The remainder of the group continued to chug along switchbacks after switchback on rocky stairs and wondering 'Are WE There Yet' and interestingly when asking fellow hikers, everyone had a different answer, from 1 hours to 10 minutes. Which obviously told us we have a lot of gruel to go.


By the time we reached, it was bit later than we would have liked. We may have landed into mosquitoes land at this point. While we started to set up camp, we realized those who had split from the group were carrying some of the essentials we needed to set up camp and cook. This was surely not going as per plan and it was starting to get dark. A decision had to be made quickly how we could spend the night safely without the essentials or we should head down.


Remaining in our group decided to head back down. The hike down was as dreadful as the climb and having to run the course same day, with backpacks and nightfall added to the challenge.

After additional 3 hours of decent, we reunited with our group at the backpackers camp. A truly adventurous journey while it did not go as planned, it gave us many lessons for our next trip.


Learning's from the tribe - This one came with a boat load of lessons.

  1. Starting early and reaching your campsite while there is enough daylight is a MUST

  2. Things happen and you may have to split from your group, always check you have your essentials to cover what you need for the night

  3. Do not underestimate the mountain and mountain weather - we miscalculated the weather and added impact of the nearby fire

  4. Its okay to change plans for the safety of self and the group

  5. Dehydration exhaustion and cramping can happen to the fittest of hikers - hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

  6. Watch for the effects the wildfires have on the weather and air quality

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